Like a lot of folks, I was pretty skeptical of Age of Sigmar when it first was released- for a variety of reasons. But the General’s Handbook has completely changed all of that.
When Age of Sigmar initially replaced Warhammer Fantasy, I wasn’t crying any real tears- the 8th Edition was a huge mess in a dozen different ways and the game had never, in fifteen years, had any significant following in my area. (I realize that there were places where it had a loyal cadre of players, but statistically speaking those were more the exception.) Its sales had been on the downslide for a long while despite a multitude of excellent model kit releases- which, incidentally, is a pretty good counterargument against the “we’re a model company not a game company” ethos- and the tournament scene had all but completely died.
So replacing Fantasy with something new was no crime on its own- however, its successor looked if anything even more of a disaster. No points values? Armies that could double their model count every turn? “Wacky” rules that only worked if you drank a beer or spelled things backwards? Age of Sigmar seemed to take all the worst aspects of 40K’s current state and mix them with the legacy problems that Fantasy had suffered from to create an unholy mishmash. Now, I’m not saying it was impossible to have fun with the game as it was released- some people did, I’m sure, and the new model releases for the Sigmarines and Khorne were above even the high bar that is typically assumed for GW’s products. There were things to like about the game, certainly, but taken as a whole it was not really playable for anyone who expected any real standards of balance or fairness. The makeshift wound limits, “pools,” and other systems many players used were flawed at best and misdirected at worst.
In short, I had no real hopes for Age of Sigmar. Its faults were different than its predecessor’s were, but no less damning for all that. I paid little attention to the various Battletomes (i.e. codices) that were released and the announcement of the General’s Handbook and the suggestion that it would have point values included in it barely even drew my notice. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It took a collection of our local players starting up an organized league to draw my attention to the changes that had happened in the game. Several of them had tried the game when it first was released and their games pretty much confirmed my impression- a Tzeentch summoning army (“borrowed” from 40K) rolled over most things in short order, units were wildly imbalanced compared to each other, etc, etc. But a few of those same players were now getting back into things and regular games seemed to be happening at our wargaming club as well as on a specialized night of its own. Responses seemed to be universally positive, even from players who had disliked it before- and while some of the participants were distinctly in the casual realm, some others were folks whose opinions and skills at gaming I respected. Something was definitely going on here.
So I borrowed a copy of the General’s Handbook as well as the .pdfs of the various armies released so far and did some reading. And I found, to my surprise, that I actually liked what I found- Age of Sigmar, with the rules changes and FAQs, was not merely a functional game but actually an enjoyable one. The system is still new enough- and few enough tournaments have been held- that it’s hard to say exactly how well it functions, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is at least as fair as 40K is and quite possibly a lot more. That’s not saying a lot, I realize, but it’s at least a starting point and if you hate some of the aspects of future Warhammer right now Age of Sigmar may be a lot more up your alley.
So what is it about the General’s Handbook that changes things so much, you ask? A few of the things are just obvious fixes for the absolute worst offenders in the game- the three “rules of one” (a ‘1’ on a die always fails, no more than one “chain” of wounds/attacks off an ability, no more than one of each spell cast per turn) all help a lot, as does toning down summoning to be a finite toolbox of points you can access rather than a way to get as many free models as you want. And of course adding in the points values is also a step that is absolutely critical- without that, none of the other changes really even mean anything. But what really impressed me about the book, and has continued to impress me the more I play games, are the missions.
Missions have been an issue in both 40K and Fantasy for a while now. 4th Edition 40K had a lot of them and they were really poorly balanced; 5th Edition only had a small handful and they tended to get repetitive. 6th/7th was where the game started to hit more of its stride, with out-of-the-box missions that were actually pretty playable. Similarly, Fantasy has mostly relied on Victory Points (i.e. total value of models killed) to resolve battles, with the “missions” just providing small bonuses to that tally up until 8th Edition came out. 8E introduced more 40K-style missions that involved trying to do a variety of things, but overall they were hard to call a success and had some very un-fun components to them.
Age of Sigmar’s missions, however, show that the designers put some actual thought and work into things. At a first glance there is nothing special about them- they mostly use the same one or two deployment types (corners, long board edges) and all revolve around capturing between two and four different objectives. However, anyone used to playing 40K or other games is in for a rude surprise they aren’t doing some very careful reading and thought because not only are the six missions quite different from each other, they each encourage very different styles of play- and that means they help open up the doors to a wide variety of army types.
The first big thing that should be noted is that tabling your opponent is not a win condition, not in any of the missions. While it can sometimes make winning them vastly easier (or even trivial), it is no guarantee of victory by any means. This is good, because it means that playing to the mission is important– you cannot simply wipe your opponent out and assume you’ll win, because games only go to five turns. That puts a lot of pressure on players to be getting stuff done as early as possible and be active.
Above and beyond that, though, is the more important fact: although each of the six missions uses objectives, they all do so very differently from each other. In fact, the way you score objectives is not necessarily even the same from game to game- in some only heroes can hold objectives, in some you need a minimum number of models to hold them and cannot have any enemies at all nearby, in some you simply need the most models in range regardless of enemy presence. These radically different methods of scoring objectives means that different sorts of units (and thus armies) will have different advantages in holding them- Border War, for example, keys off of having the most models in range and thus rewards horde armies that swarm onto them and gum up the works. Three Places of Power, on the other hand, gives the objective to the first hero to get within range and doesn’t care if another one shows up later- you have to kill the original claimant in order to stop them from scoring points, so speedy heroes willing to get up close and personal with the enemy are a must. There are some small overlaps in the the game types, but taken as a whole it is actually shockingly diverse.
The win conditions are also very different from each other, which adds to the variety of feels for the missions. Several of the missions are scored progressively, with players racking up points each turn based on the objectives they control (though the exact details vary); on the other hand, some missions have “sudden death” conditions that will cause the game to end immediately if they are fulfilled, such as holding every objective on the board, but are otherwise very difficult to complete and usually result in the game going to tiebreakers. But again, all of these different victory conditions only serve to heighten the diversity of armies that can participate; a force with lackluster damage output (but excellent survivability) can quite possibly grind its way to a win even though it is losing models at a much faster rate than the opponent and a maneuverable army can use its speed to take the initiative and begin scoring early on, putting the enemy on the back foot from the very beginning.
None of this means the game is without its problems- there are things I very much don’t like about it (such as the “random” turn order) and issues I still think need to be addressed. And though the tournament scene is still young, some of the factions seem to be pulling into a an obvious lead to start with- though it’s impossible to say if that will reverse itself, stay the course, or something else entirely. Some units are over- or under-costed by a significant amount and the bewildering subdivisions of factions (some of which literally only have a single model to their name) can be both confusing and obnoxious. But compared to where the game was when it was released, it is an improvement of absolutely unprecedented proportions.
If I come off as a bit of a gushing fanboy in this article, you’ll have to forgive me- I had all but given up hope for Age of Sigmar and the possibility of playing swords-and-sorcery wargames in general. If you were in a similar situation, or if you’ve simply been sitting back and watching things, unsure of whether to try the game out, I can happily recommend that you give it a shot. In addition to its other strong points the General’s Handbook is a mere US$25, practically a pittance compared to most of GW’s rules books, and the excellent army starter bundles (as well as low overall model count in general) mean that getting into things is actually quite affordable.